Boko Haram's new 'change of tactics', and what it has in common with the Protestant Reformation

It’s often lost in the discourse on African conflicts, but in many cases, rule over people is more important than rule over land in the continent.

ONE week ago, Islamist militants Boko Haram captured the town on Mubi in Adamawa state, renaming it Madinatul Islam (“the city of Islam”). 

Though the group has been attacking villages and government installations in a largely hit-and-run style, this time, it seems its tactics have shifted – there is an attempt to set up a form of administration and actually run the town. 

Reports indicate that the group has been urging besieged locals “not to panic or run away”, assuring them of “safety”; the militants are even ordering shops to open, threatening shop owners who do not open that their premises will be broken into. 

But if you think they want the shops open so that they can loot and pillage, think again – apparently, Boko Haram militants are paying for goods: “Whenever the insurgents want any commodity, they pay for it. This encouraged meat sellers, tea sellers and others to open for business,” a resident of Mubi is quoted to have said. 

In September, the group declared a caliphate over northeastern Nigeria, and this recent shift seems to be a reflection of the group’s longer-term intentions, but also a realisation, in practical terms, that you can’t be a ruler without having people to rule. 

In Mubi, the militants have been threatening to marry off spinsters to bachelors by force.

The Boko Haram “community”

Although the Chibok schoolgirls have grabbed all the headlines, in the past year or so, there have been intermittent kidnappings of hundreds of villagers in northeastern Nigeria, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. 

One source I spoke to in Abuja said that when villagers are kidnapped, they go and are forced to “live with and become Boko Haram”. At the time I heard this, I assumed she meant they are forced to become fighters, but the group’s recent action in Mubi, suggests the more literal interpretation – that of actually joining the Boko Haram “community”.

It’s often lost in the discourse on African conflicts, but in many cases the rule over people plays out more strongly than rule over land in Africa. 

It is because population densities in much of the continent is low – particularly in the arid pastoralist areas of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa that have suffered much conflict - so people, rather than land, are usually in shortage. As a result, the search for adherents (or the reproduction of your own) was always more important than the annexation of territory. 

Anthropologist and political scientist Goran Hyden, in his expansive textbook on African politics argues it compellingly that, generally, African societies had an almost insatiable demand for people and jealously guarded those they already had. 

It is no coincidence, that over half of all cases in customary courts across the continent have to do with marriage, divorce and dowry, matters that all involve the social appropriation of offspring – the idea that you and your children belong to “us”, the community. 

Have more people, will eat

Even in fertile agricultural areas, what the land yields is largely dependant on how many hands you have to work it, and how hard they work, so people, rather than land, is the limiting factor of production. 

But there is something else driving Boko Haram’s latest attempt to install some form of normal life, albeit under what even some Muslim scholars see as a twisted interpretation of Islamic law. 

The notion of a caliphate, of a historical-political state governed by Islamic law and tradition resonates in much of the Muslim world, even though many Muslims may not share Boko’s (and ISIS’) radical version of it. 

Shadi Hamid, writing in The Atlantic, argues that the idea of a caliphate is a reminder of how one of the world’s great civilisations endured one of the more steep declines in human history, and the “gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves is at the center of the anger and humiliation that drives political violence” in the Middle East – and this argument could be extended to the Sahel region of West Africa. 

Great past Islamic empires of Africa

It is not a coincidence, therefore that radical groups like Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine, which captured the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in 2012, claim to be the “ideological descendants” of Seku Amadu, El Hajj Umar Tall and Usman Dan Fodio – all military commanders and founders of Islamic empires in Africa in past centuries. 

But importantly, they weren’t just soldiers, they were thinkers, scholars and religious teachers and reformists, who yearned for a return to the purity of Islam. Dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th century, wrote more than a hundred books concerning religion, government and society, criticising the African Muslim elites of the time for what he saw as their greed, oppression, paganism and violation of the Qur’an. 

Hamid thus draws an intriguing parallel between the rise of political Islam and the Protestant Reformation. In the case of Christianity, the corruption and despotism of the Catholic Church, coupled with the rise of mass literacy led to the weakening of the clerical class, and eventually, to modern liberalism. 

But for Islam, mass literacy and weakening of the clerics has already happened – the decline was driven by colonialism and the ascendance of the modern nation-state. 

Though for Europe these forces led to secularisation, in the Muslim world, these same forces – in the context of the accelerated weakening of the clerics by colonialism and modernisation - have done the opposite, giving rise to political and radical Islam. So it’s not justified to believe that moderates will necessarily prevail in the coming decades. 

And coincidentally, or not, the area under Boko Haram’s siege falls in the historic territory of the Kanem-Bornu empire of the Kanuri people, who inhabit northeastern Nigeria, southeast Niger, western Chad and northern Cameroon.

Although separated by modern borders, the Kanuri people acknowledge the Shehu of Borno, headquartered in Maiduguri, Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, as their traditional ruler. 

So if Boko Haram harnesses the yearning of past glory – coupled with today’s grievances – it could prove to be a strong motivation for getting popular support from the now-harassed locals, and then, Boko Haram will be a very difficult problem to solve.

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